Category Archives: Art

Approval at last for a bird nerd

When I was five years old, my mother’s sister Carol handed me a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Somehow she knew that I’d be interested in the subject. Over the years I purchased many other field guides that improved on the methods of the original book developed by Roger Tory Peterson. Yet I owe a sentimental debt to that first copy. It fueled my interest and taught me so much about the natural world.

Peterson's guide
The original Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds given to me at five years old.

With an early passion for drawing, I began tracing the birds in the Peterson’s Field Guide with a special focus on the hawks, which drew my attention the most.

Peterson Hawks
The visible tracings of hawks in my first Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.

By the time I was twelve years old I was painting and drawing birds on my own. And when my eldest brother came home from college on fire with interest in birds after taking an ornithology course, we all went out in the field together to identify every bird we could find. These I marked down with eagerness and pride.

Birding List
A chronicle of species seen as recorded in the back of my Peterson’s Field Guide.

Among my friends, the interest in birds was at that age a point of teasing and ridicule. The nickname “Birdman” was applied with some disdain. But I ignored those supposed insults and kept painting and drawing birds because frankly, I was by then making some money at it.

Through high school, I found a mentor in Robert Horlock, a biology teacher with whom I spent hours in the field. He introduced me to other birders. That led to my first engagement with Citizen Science as a founding member of the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey team that tracked breeding and migratory species in a newly established wetland preserve. We participated in annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts as well, a commitment that lasted for thirty consecutive years.

LMBST
The zones of the marsh marked out for the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey Team.

That bird survey team was one of the first times in my life that a seemingly childish interest felt validated in the adult world. My ability to credibly identify birds was respected by the adults with whom I met on a quarterly basis. My trips afield for that purpose felt serious and important. I was contributing to the preservation and conservation of something that I really loved. And having fun doing it. That was the right kind of pride, I thought.

Admittedly there was some ego involved in all my birding and art pursuits. As a young man with a strong need for approval, the praise earned for finding bids and doing artwork was a prized reward. So were the bragging rights in having seen twenty species of warblers on a cool spring morning, or calling in a peregrine falcon to the Rare Bird Alert phone line that served as the Internet for birders before the digital revolution began.

Bankswallow7
A bank swallow in full sunlight. Photo by Christopher Cudworth

The thrills of birding over the years have included rare species that turned up at odd times. I wrote an article published in Bird Watcher’s Digest last year documenting the day that I found a European Stonechat in Illinois. It was the first of its kind seen in the Lower 48 United States. Lacking a camera on-site at the moment––it was before the era of cell phone cameras––I rushed home to do a painting and share it online. But unfortunately, the sighting could not be officially recognized by the Illinois Ornithological Union or any other organization because the bird was never viewed by another credible birder. Those are the rules. So the thrill of finding such a rarity remains a pleasure of my own accord.

Stonechat Paintings
The watercolor sketches I did of the European Stonechat found in Illinois, 1998.

These days I am well-equipped to document everything found in the field. Perhaps my obsession is in compensation for the frustration of losing that sighting of the Stonechat to the ether of personal history. I geared up over the years with a high-quality spotting scope to which I attached a series of digital cameras to take pictures of birds. Finally, I purchased a 150mm-600mm Sigma camera lens to use with my Canon camera. It’s not top-end gear, but it is fun to capture images of the birds I’ve studied for so many years.

Pelicans Flight 2
A flight of pelicans over Peck Farm Park lake in Geneva, Illinois, 2019.

It would have been nice to have that kind of camera in my early years of birding when I tried so desperately to find “references” for my bird paintings. Back in the 70s and 80s when wildlife art was a big scene, it was artists with access to detailed photography that won the day. I tried to replicate that process over the years and finally produced some relatively solid work using my own photo references. But by then the market for bird paintings was waning. Digital photography now makes wildlife imagery so commonplace that entire sites on social media fill daily with photos of birds and other creatures. In many respects, the thrill that once came with celebrating those insights of nature is gone.

Bald Eagle Painting
A bald eagle painting by Christopher Cudworth, 24′ X 36″, 2012

That said, my interest in birds has matured. My fascination now is with their behavior, and I still love leading people into the field to share in the thrill of seeing species of birds they never imagined existed.  My personal life list of American species sits just below 500 and I’ll happily accept any new species that comes along. But that’s a rarity for sure these days unless I travel to a new place such as the Pacific Coast, where I hope to bird some day.

Coopers Hawk
Painting of a Cooper’s hawk by Christopher Cudworth. 

I’ll still paint birds and have a library of 20,000 images from which to work. It is a catalog of the time spent outside staring through optics and camera lenses at living things that deserve to be protected, celebrated and appreciated. I guess that’s enough approval for a bird nerd at last.

Chris Headshot

 

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com. 

Social distancing: it works for me

Screech Owl
A life drawing of a screech owl by Christopher Cudworth, 1976

When it comes to the consequences of dealing with the risks of exposure to Coronavirus, it’s easy to feel put out by the fact that we’re supposed to stay in.

Yet I was thinking back to other times in my life when I spent time alone and apart from others, and some really nice memories cropped up to make me feel better.

In particular, I recall the relative isolation of a January term in college spent at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. I’d arranged to spend three weeks studying birds and was assigned to curate the entire collection of bird art housed at the Sapsucker Woods facility, which was then a stolid little building next to a pond far from the Cornell campus.

I arrived with $750 in my pocket and no place to stay. How my parents allowed me to take off on my own without talking about a place to live for three weeks in the snowy environs of Upstate

Fuertes
Sketches by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

New York I don’t really know. They’d both grown up near Ithaca. They knew what the winters were like. My father attended Cornell and my mother went to college in Potsdam, even further north. I guess they figured I’d asked the question and found somewhere to live. All they knew was that I was enthused about studying bird art during my sophomore year in college and had visited the Lab one time before with an aunt that understood my love for the work of Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

So I took off for New York in my father’s big, white Buick LeSabre and arrived, all naive and eager, on the doorstep of the Lab with little else in mind than to do everything I’d dreamed about.

Fortunately, the director had mercy on my idiocy and found me a place to stay about a mile down the road from the main building. It was a house in the middle of rehab work. so it offered no running hot water, but it did have heat. I was only too glad to take it and I genuinely relished the time alone.

Wood Duck Bishop
Studies of drawing by Richard Bishop by Christopher Cudworth, 1976

Once that pragmatic issue was solved, I dove right away into the work of curating the Lab’s prodigious bird art collection. Some of it remained stored in cluttered chests of drawings and paintings donated by the estate of artists such as Richard Bishop. I carefully handled each of these works of art and copied some of the drawings in my own hand. For me, this was the Holy Grail of bird art, a look behind the scenes at some of the finest bird artists in the world.

In the morning I’d hide away in the closets out of sight from the occasional visitor staring at feeder birds outside the Lab windows. Feeling no compunction for human contact, and obsessed with the work before me, I went days without talking much to anyone.

And then I wandered over to the Hawk Barn where rare peregrine and gyrfalcons sat in cold pens, part of the breeding program set up at Cornell to revive the populations of those endangered birds in the wake of the pesticide devastation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One day I stood peering through a tiny porthole doing drawings of a gyrfalcon and a set of peregrine inches away from my face. I felt no need to talk.

Gyrfalcon
Live drawings of a gyrfalcon and peregrine falcon by Christopher Cudworth, 1976

This went on for a week. I’d hike the mile to the Lab, curate or draw all day, eat a small sandwich along the way, and hike back after dark. It snowed at least an inch every day, so the world always looked fresh and inviting. The cold barely affected me.

Yet one night I finally felt the need to bathe and wash my thick head of hair. So I heated up some water on the stove, broke out a washcloth to take care of the vitals and then washed my hair under the sink. But it still required some heavy rinsing, so I took another deep pan of lukewarm water outside to stand in the snow and pour the water over my head. It was four degrees below zero outside.

Instantly my hair froze, but I wasn’t that worried about it. Yet when I’d stopped dripping and tipped my head up to look around, I felt something watching me. To be sure, it was one of the wolves from the Wolf Range peering at me through the darkness. It stood back from the fence a ways. I tipped my head back down and went inside. To this day it still feels like a dream. Perhaps it was.

Woodcock bishop
A pencil drawing after the work of Richard Bishop

For weeks I filled an art book with sketches and observations about my studies of bird art and works by masters such as George Miksch Sutton, Don Richard Eckleberry and Guy Coheleach. These were my heroes, and their work spoke to me in language as clear as an actual conversation. So I seldom needed to talk.

I only broke the relative vow of silence toward the end of the internship. I’d learned that a well-known artist lived near the Lab, so I fired up the LeSabre and was glad that it started at all, for it had a testy carburetor that tended to freeze over.

That afternoon I poured out questions to the artist, who kindly tolerated my aggressive curiosity, enthusiasm, and obsession with my own studies. He warned me that a career in bird art would likely never be lucrative, that one had to be lucky as well as good, but if you worked hard enough sometimes the two would combine.

That gave me pause of course. Perhaps I’d imagined that immersing myself in all that world-class art would somehow punch a ticket to the stardom I somewhat imagined for myself. So that interior dialog took up the rest of my time. It swirled inside my head as if my mind were an inside-out snowglobe matched by the daily batch of thick flurries falling from gray New York skies.

Grouse tail
A detail from at 1976 painting Great Horned Owl with Ruffed Grouse by Christopher Cudworth

But I was happy. The last day of my internship the Laboratory director took a look at my collection of paintings and was complimentary of some of the feather work. “But you need to look at the whole bird to be convincing in your work,” he quietly instructed me.

That would honestly be a lesson learned over a lifetime. I never became famous for my bird art but have sold more than a thousand paintings over the years. Some of them pop back into my life now and then, and I calmly critique those early works with the inner dialogue of a painter unafraid to be alone with his thoughts, or his endeavors.

That is the social distance that all of us consumed with the arts or writing tend to keep. It is the space between the praise and production that drives us to be our own best and worst critics. It involves quite a bit of interior dialogue and even time apart from all of humanity to find the truth. But nature is never the enemy. It is the type of social distancing that works for me. It always has. And it always will.

 

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com 

Drawing on the inspiration for a new day

In 1976 as a sophomore at Luther College, I was enrolled in a Field Biology class taught by Dr. David Roslien, a professor whose course was a deep dive into every aspect of the natural world. I still have the lab journals richly recording our trips into the snows of January to capture voles and mice, and standing hip-deep in chill waters to study frogs in the ponds of northeast Iowa.

I did well in certain aspects of the coursework, but when it came to labs and genetics and such, I struggled. In true evolutionary fashion, Dr. Roslien saw that my aptitudes as a true biologist were limited. But he admired my artistic abilities as evidenced in a series of illustrations I did during our studies of frog species.

Frog and Toad 5I don’t recall what motivated me to engage in this depth of depiction, but I can say that I was inspired by all the things we were studying. Part of our classwork involved capturing specimens of seven or eight different frog species. I got after it and found them all that spring. Then I set out to paint them in watercolor.

Frog and Toad 4Working from photographs I found in some book about frogs, I painted furiously over a period of two nights. The results were some of the most detailed illustrations I’d yet done in life. I was nineteen years old. And obsessed with real-life depictions.

Frog and Toad 3The spring peeper and gray treefrog illustrations were inspired by real-life encounters shining flashlights to find specimens on chill spring nights. We’d listened as well to the daytime calls of chorus frogs singing from flooded ditches. And toads whistling from dusk well into the night.

Frog and Toad 1But midway through the course, Dr. Roslien pulled me aside to let me know the truth about my future as a biologist. “I’ve not sure you’re a pure scientist,” I recall him sharing with me. “But you finish those six frog drawings and stuff those birds in that artsy way you do, and we’ll give you a B. But I’ve already talked to the Art Department. They’re eager to have you over there.”

And that’s how it transpired that I became an Art Major with a minor in English. I didn’t give up wildlife art. In fact I sold hundreds of paintings over the years. While I didn’t become world-famous during the peak of the wildlife art boom in the late 70s and through the 80s, I did get chosen for some world-class shows at the Brookfield Zoological Society and other venues.

It was a competitive scene for sure. Many wildlife artists depended on photos to create original works. Some copied them outright, even projecting images on the canvas to copy the exact details.

Recently I got to see the frog drawings I’d done all those years ago. They’d existed mostly in my mind for the last 40+ years. I knew that I’d done an exceptional job on detail back then. I took great pride in doing so, working on the craft of “getting things right.” That’s always a good thing.

But my real pleasure comes in knowing that my professor lovingly framed and preserved those drawings as kept them as a symbol of his teaching and influence on a young man hoping to find his way in the world.

So while I’m not famous as an artist in terms of wealth or following, it has been a great journey nonetheless. And seeing those paintings from long ago offers inspiration for a new day.